The Grammarphobia Blog

Poaching eggs vs. poaching deer

Q: Why are poaching a deer and poaching an egg such different activities?

A: As unlike as the two actions are, poaching an egg and poaching a deer may be related etymologically, though the early history is uncertain and language authorities are divided over the issue.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, edited by Julia Cresswell, says the two meanings of “poach” are probably related:

“Poaching eggs and poaching game may seem vastly different activities, but they are both probably connected with the Old French word pochier or French pocher, ‘to enclose in a bag.’ ”

John Ayto goes a step further in his Dictionary of Word Origins, saying without qualification that “English has two words poach, both of which go back ultimately to Old French.”

The cooking term, Ayto writes, “is an allusion to the forming of little white ‘bags’ or ‘pockets’ around the yolk of eggs by the coagulating white,” while the hunting or fishing term “seems to mean etymologically ‘put in one’s pocket.’ ”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, edited by Robert K. Barnhart, agrees that the kitchen sense of “poach” comes from the pocket meaning of pochier, but says the hunting sense is derived from another meaning of the Old French verb—poke out, which in turn comes from similar words in old Germanic languages.

We’ll let the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, have the last word. It says the use of “poach” in hunting and fishing is “of uncertain origin,” though “perhaps a borrowing from French.”

The OED adds that the “put in a bag” sense here is “apparently a primary one,” but the etymological connection between the French and English terms is unclear.

The dictionary defines “poach” in its cookery sense as “to cook (an egg) without the shell in simmering, or over boiling, water; to simmer or steam (an egg) in a poacher.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which uses the past participle as an adjective, is from a cookbook written around 1450:  “Pocched egges … breke faire rawe egges and caste hem in þe water.”

The first Oxford example for “poach” used purely as a verb in cooking is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I potche egges, je poche des œufs. He that wyll potche egges well muste make his water sethe first.”

As for the illicit sense of “poach,” the OED defines it as “to go in illegal pursuit of game, fish, etc., esp. by trespassing (on the lands or rights of another) or in contravention of official protection.”

In the dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the noun “poachers,” the verb is implied: “Many poachers ran vp [up] and downe ye countrye to espye where were any olde or sicke prelate, & there-vpon poasted to Rome to purchase a graunt of his lyuing [living].” (From Pageant of Popes, 1574, John Studley’s translation of a papal history in Latin by the English cleric John Bale.)

The next OED citation is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), compiled by Randall Cotgrave: “Pocher le labeur d’autruy, to poche into, or incroach vpon, another mans imployment, practise, or trade.”

The first Oxford example that uses the verb in its hunting sense is from an early 18th-century English dictionary: “To poach … to destroy Game by unlawful means, as by laying Snares, Gins, etc.” (From The New World of Words, a 1706 dictionary edited by John Kersey. A gin is a trap for catching birds or small mammals.)

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